It is often said that footballers don’t have the same passion for the game as the fans. It is a job to them after-all and they are doing it for work as much as enjoyment. Every now and then though a player comes along with such infectious enthusiasm for the game that it is as if the passion from the stands has manifested itself in the form of a player. Ian Wright was one such player.
Wright wasn’t just a ‘cult icon’ style of fan-favourite, he was one of England’s most lethal strikers and he matched his enthusiastic approach with goals, talent and a relentless will to win. This relentlessness is embodied in the way Wright found his way to the top of the game. After failing to impress sufficiently in trials to win a contract with Brighton & Hove Albion, Wright found himself playing semi-professionally for Greenwich Borough.
Whilst playing there he was working full-time in maintenance for Tunnel Refineries in Greenwich. He was playing for Borough when he was scouted by Crystal Palace and invited for a trial period. It was only at the third time of asking that Wright took the Eagles up on their offer of a trial. He had a steady, well-paid, job, and had one baby with another on the way. It was Wright’s boss who convinced him to go for it and that the trial was a once in a lifetime opportunity. His boss was correct, the trial was successful and the Londoner signed his first professional contract with Palace, just short of his 22nd birthday.
Whilst at Selhurst Park, Wright struck up a strike partnership with Mark Bright. The pair would develop something of a telepathic understanding as they became a ‘team within a team’. Under the expert tutelage of manager Steve Coppell, the Wright-Bright forward tandem led Palace to promotion to First Division in the 1988/89 season. Wright was the top scorer that season, striking 33 times in all competitions.
The following season again showed Wright’s battling qualities as he fought back from twice breaking his leg to make the bench in the FA Cup Final. Manchester United were the Eagles opponents that day and as the Palace side lined up in the tunnel they were joined by an extra body. The substitutes were supposed to leave the tunnel area prior to the teams being led out by their respective managers. Wright had other ideas though, taking up a position as the 12th man at the back of the Palace line-up. “No way I was missing that,” he said.
Wright was introduced to the game with his team 2-1 down to United, his impact was immediate as he fired the Eagles level. The energy and passion of the front-mans celebration seemed to sum up his attitude. It got even better in extra-time as Wright scored his second of the game to put Palace in front. Sadly, for the London side, it wasn’t to be their day as they lost out in a replay having played out a famous 3-3 draw.
The scoring exploits of the Palace hitman had gotten him noticed and in September 1991 he moved across London. Arsenal paid a then club record £2.5 million for the striker which would prove to be exceptional value for money.
Arsenal were the reigning English Champions when Wright joined their ranks in the 1991/92 season. To say that he hit the ground running would something of an understatement. An injury forced Alan Smith out of his regular starting spot in the Arsenal side that travelled to Leicester in the League Cup. Wright would be given Smith’s number 9 shirt for the cup-tie at Filbert Street.
The first sighting of Wright in an Arsenal shirt wouldn’t be in their traditional red with white sleeves though. The away shirt that the men from Highbury were sporting that season has become something of a cult classic. The bright yellow shirt with dark blue chevrons was always a ‘marmite’ choice of kit. It’s been voted in best and worst shirt categories since and it’s certainly unique.
Wright managed to shine as bright as his canary yellow shirt in the final minute of the half. He picked up a Paul Davis pass 25-yards out from goal on the left angle of the box. The debutant then fired an accurate low drive across the goalkeeper and in off the post for the game’s opening goal. A goal on debut was followed up by a hat-trick in his second match; Ian Wright had arrived.
The following season brought silverware for the man who had so agonisingly missed out with Palace just a few years earlier. A Stephen Morrow goal was enough to see off Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup Final at Wembley. It was in the FA Cup of that same season where Wright had a real impact.
As they attempted to win their first FA Cup and League Cup-double, Arsenal again faced Sheffield Wednesday in a repeat of the League Cup Final. It was Wright’s downward header that gave Arsenal in the lead only for Wednesday to equalise and send the final to a replay. Arsenal took the lead in the replay too. Alan Smith’s flick on was slid into the net by Wright, and the game was won by Andy Linighan’s late header.
With the Cup-double in the trophy cabinet Arsenal embarked on two remarkable European campaigns in back-to-back seasons. Arsenal went all the way to the final to win the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup against Parma in Copenhagen. Alan Smith scored the final’s only goal but unfortunately for Wright he missed the game due to a suspension after picking up a booking in the semi-final second-leg.
The Gunners almost won back-to-back Cup Winners’ Cup’s the following season. Arsenal’s presence in the show-piece match owed much to the goals of Wright who scored in every round on the way to the final. That was one game too far for both Wright’s scoring and Arsenal’s winning streak in the competition as they fell to Spanish side Real Zaragoza.
Arsene Wenger arrived to manage Arsenal in September of 1996, Wright was in his 33rd year but his touch in front of goal had shown no signs of ageing. A regular in the top-scorer charts Wright managed six straight seasons as the London clubs’ top-scorer. This lethal form eventually fired him into the club’s record books.
It was on the 13th of September 1997 that Wright would cement his place in the Gunners history books. A goal shy of Cliff Bastin’s record of 178 club goals Wright would go into the game against Bolton after three straight games without a goal. When he scored to level the game at 1-1 Wright ripped off his red and white shirt to reveal a vest emblazoned with the Nike logo and a message reading ‘179 – Just Done It’.
It was typical of Wright’s confidence that he would have his celebration pre-planned. Excitement had got the better of him though as he had only equalled the record. He didn’t need to wait to wait long though as his second not only won the match but surpassed the record. Wright was now Arsenal’s greatest ever goal-scorer.
It was the record-breaking strikers final season at the club when he broke the record. His seven year stay at Highbury culminated in a League and Cup double as Wright won his first league championship medal. It was a fitting end for a player who had scored 185 goals in 288 appearances.
Wright also represented his country on 33 occasions, scoring 9 times. He was a victim of a particularly rich pool of strikers from which England managers had to choose during the height of his career. A mixture of injury and managerial selection meant that Wright never got to represent England at a major tournament despite playing numerous qualifiers.
The latter years of Ian Wright’s club career saw him represent West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Celtic and Burnley with mixed results. His ability to hit the net never left him though, scoring on debut for both Forest and Celtic.
Since retiring from playing Wright has become a successful broadcaster. He has tried his hand a television presenting on a number of shows as well as his continued punditry work on TV and Radio. He received an MBE in 2000 following his retirement, and in 2018 was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to London Football for his significant contribution to the game in his home city.
Anyone who saw Wright play will remember his time on the pitch for the footballing force of nature that he was. A player who not only appeared to love the spotlight but who also thrived in it. Commitment, enthusiasm and ability were all present and never in question. But most of all, Ian Wright, Wright, Wright will be remembered for Goals, Goals, Goals.